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Obama Preparing Big Effort to Curb Climate Change

By John M. Broder (The New York Times) - June 19, 2013

President Obama is preparing a major policy push on climate change, including, for the first time, limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants, as well as expanded renewable energy development on public lands and an accelerated effort on energy efficiency in buildings and equipment, senior officials said Wednesday.

Heather Zichal, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, said the president would announce the new policy initiatives in the coming weeks. Another official said a presidential address outlining the new policy could come as early as next week.

“He is serious about making it a second-term priority,” Ms. Zichal said at a forum in Washington sponsored by the magazine The New Republic. “He knows this is a legacy issue.”

In a speech in Berlin on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said that the United States and the world had a moral imperative to take “bold action” to slow the warming of the planet.

“The grim alternative affects all nations — more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise,” Mr. Obama said. “This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work.”

Ms. Zichal suggested in her remarks that a central part of the administration’s approach to dealing with climate change would be to use the authority given to the Environmental Protection Agency to address climate-altering pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act. She said none of the initiatives being considered by the administration required legislative action or new financing from Congress.

The electric power sector is responsible for about a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and any serious effort to address climate change will require steps to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants from coal-burning power plants.

“The E.P.A. has been working very hard on rules that focus specifically on greenhouse gases from the coal sector,” Ms. Zichal said. “They’re doing a lot of important work in that space.”

The issue of power plant regulation is sensitive because it will most likely make electricity more expensive in many parts of the country and put further stress on the coal industry, which is already suffering from a lack of demand as utilities switch to natural gas, which is cheaper.

Regulation of existing power plants is further complicated by the pending nomination of Gina McCarthy to become the administrator of the E.P.A. Ms. McCarthy, who worked as a top environmental regulator under Democratic and Republican governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts, has for the past four years run the E.P.A.’s Office of Air and Radiation, which is responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act.

Senate Republicans are holding up her nomination over unrelated issues, but there is widespread concern among Republicans and industry leaders about her intentions on power plant regulation. In a carefully worded statement, she told committee members during her confirmation proceedings that the agency “is not currently developing any existing source G.H.G. regulations,” referring to power plants and refineries currently in operation and using the common abbreviation for greenhouse gas.

Last year, the E.P.A. proposed greenhouse gas regulations for new power plants that would essentially bar the construction of any additional coal-fired plants. The administration was required to complete that regulation by mid-April, but it missed the deadline, and it has not said when it expects to complete it.

Environmental groups have given notice that they intend to sue to force the E.P.A. to complete the new power plant rules, but lawyers for the groups said this week that they would hold off on the suit until the president made his intentions clearer.